Non-Time and Hauntology

There are lots of plausible and interrelated explanations for why the pop-culture future can no longer occur.

I went to a talk last night at NYU by Mark Fisher about "hauntology," which refers to a kind of intermediate space-time between places palpably shaped by organic time and nonplaces (shopping malls, etc. -- see Marc Augé), which are wrenched out of time and posit an unending nontime, the end of history, an undisruptable retailing present that perpetually recurs. I didn't really get what hauntology was all about: it seemed to have to do with cultural productions that are aware of the nonplace/nontime crisis -- the way neoliberalism has foisted non-space/time on us, along with a subjectivity without depth that must flaunt its requisite flexibility by shuffling the deck of floating signifiers -- and are "reflexive" and "critical" and "negative" about this condition. Fisher made this point with music: British pop music now is blithely appropriational of the past without foregrounding that in any particular way; retro has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor. So music made now would not be at all disruptive, he argues, if someone living in 1979 heard it. There would be no retroactive future shock. It doesn't sound like the future; the future that should be occurring now has been thwarted, lost, effaced. The sense of cultural teleology is gone, vanished, perhaps, in the now pervasive relativism that regards all culture product as potentially valuable.

There are lots of plausible and interrelated explanations for why the pop-culture future can no longer occur, including:

(1) The demise of a hegemonic culture industry (and the rise of digitization and peer-to-peer distribution) brought the end of a shared sense of the cultural moment. We're not all watching the same TV show at the same time and hearing the same records on the radio. Instead we have access to all culture all at once, on demand -- whether it's, say, Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the complete works of Margaret Cavendish, yesterday's episode of Survivor, or all of them at once. This AV Club article by Steven Hyden about Def Leppard's Hysteria gets at the idea:

As everything changes rapidly around us, we as music fans in many ways still think we’re living in a Def Leppard world, where winning a Grammy means you’ve arrived, and going to No. 1 on the charts makes you a pop star. In reality, we live in a culture where the terms “mainstream” and “underground” have become virtually meaningless, as practically every song by every band ever is equally accessible, frequently at no cost, to anyone with an Internet connection and the interest to seek it out ... It’s clear that music rarely unites us under the banner of mass-accepted artists anymore; even in a concert audience, we’re all just a bunch of individuals, with little connecting us to one another beyond a shared interest in the artist onstage—one artist among hundreds on our abundantly stocked iPods. Sounds lonely, doesn’t it? Sometimes I yearn for the old world, the one I grew up in, a place where dinosaurs like Hysteria stomped around pop culture for months, if not years, leaving sizable impressions in the hearts of a generation, whether they liked it or not.

The availability of everything means that particular works of pop music lose "symbolic efficiency" to use (and possibly misuse) a term from Žižek. Nothing successfully connotes the zeitgeist; everything invokes a desire to one-up with a better reference or a new meme or detournement of the contemporary. We are too knowing and skeptical to accept anything as unproblematically representative of the now.

(2) Neoliberalism/post-fordism/late capitalism has projected itself as the end of history, normalized nontime, and generalized the reception of conditions of ontological insecurity as freedom. We lack a subjectivity that can experience or recognize historicity.

Fisher links the idea of a "missing future" with the disappearance of negativity and criticality in contemporary pop culture, which (as I interpret it) has no space for anything oppositional or which transforms oppositional gestures into postures that circulate only as signifiers of personal identity. It reminds me of Douglas Haddow's "Hipsters are the dead-end of Western culture" argument:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the "hipster" – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Hipsters don't experience non-time negatively, as a loss, as melancholic, as indicative of deep alienation. Instead they seem to be thoroughly subjectivized by neoliberalism to the extent that they regard it as opportunity to show off how creative they can be in their cycle of appropriations. That last thing they want is to be reminded of how their personality is conditioned by the times they live in; in nontime, one can feel transcendent and immortal, one can permanently defer adulthood.

Hauntological music (like Burial) tries to at least evoke the feeling of loss, tries to register the missing future as a kind of catastrophe, Fisher argues, though it can't actually instantiate this missing future. It tries to at least restore meaning to the concept of retro, foregrounding the appropriations of the past by sounding like a scratchy record, and so on. (I don't know; all electronic music literally sounds the same to me.) I wasn't persuaded that a work's reflexivity about how symptomatic it is itself of the impossibility of escaping non-time made it viable as a mode of resistance. I'm probably too skeptical of reflexivity to ever regard it as resistance; I see reflexivity as the quintessential mode of neoliberalist subjectivity -- a calculating self-consciousness that can't be escaped, that forces us to be considering our identity as an alienated thing to be developed and invested entrepreneurially. (The following is highly provisional and may ultimately prove embarrassing): Whatever is reflexive needs to become collective. The problem of non-spacetime is that of an isolated individual subject who admits of no possibility for intersubjectivity, which is perhaps the primary way we experience history, through how our relations with others subjectivize us in particular, contingent ways. Reflexivity about our loss of that intersubjectivity seems to still cling to the individuation, to see and secretly cherish one's isolated uniqueness and incontingency in the recognition of it as a loss.

In my view, social media have become the extension of non-spacetime, where nothing, no identity or incident, is necessarily contingent or organic, and one is doomed to the "freedom" of endless ontological insecurity, the forever search for a grounding authenticity that can only generate more memes. Social media are where we go to protect our experience of nontime, which is threatened by the Real, by historicity, by death. Facebook is the ultimate nonplace. Being on it is to enter non-time, to maintain a continual pseudo-presence.

The non-spacetime crisis, I think, is a crisis of presence. When we exist in non-spacetime, presence becomes impossible -- or it is known by its absence, in a kind of negative theology. To put that less cryptically (or maybe not): technology has basically dissolved the unity of the subject in a particular place in time. Smart phones, etc., let us be in many places at once, conducting any number of conversations and self-presentations asynchronously. This casts an air of provisionality over everything we do; our lack of total commitment to a that place at that moment is always implied, always understood. No one is even bothered anymore when someone they are talking to looks at their phone. There is no ethical requirement to be fully present, and without that, there is no genuine (I know, how can you even ever define "genuine") intersubjectivity. The refusal to be fully present is a restatement of the refusal to permit our identity to be socially contingent or to be palpably collective. The smart phone reserves our right to check out of any collective identity formation at any time. This is the essence of contemporary "convenience," which I have long interpreted as being able to avoid interaction with other humans and being forced to empathize with them and recognize their existence as other. (We can only tolerate other people when we regard them as extra in our movie.)

Fisher referred to Jameson's distinction between psychological nostalgia and formal nostalgia, between the ability to evoke a real lost past and being trapped in pastiche. What I took from this is that the postmodern/neoliberal subject cannot access psychological nostalgia, but can only simulate it through pastiche, as this sort of subject has only existed in nontime as opposed to historical time. My sense is that this subject doesn't yearn for historical time at all but worries about historical time erupting into nontime via some sort of terrible Event. When something that threatens to be an Event happens, subjects rush to assimilate it to nontime by mediatizing it, "sharing" it in social media, or meme-ifying it. I'm not sure if this holds, but it may be possible to interpret the ad hoc celebrations of Osama bin Laden's execution this way -- an effort to experience a historical moment in a way that dehistoricizes it -- puts the partyers back at the center of their personal hermetic history, claims the Event as just an event in their individual story.

Because we have no access anymore to psychological nosalgia, we end up nostalgic for the capability for nostalgia, we feel homesickness for a home we never had. These leads to a compensatory attraction to childhood kitsch, to moribund objects (joining a typewriter club is an extreme manifestation of this), to anachronism, atavism, whatever seems genuinely and indelibly marked by a past. This perpetuates the cycle that denies the creation of a distinctive future, guarantees that the future is a more attenuated and annotated reconfiguration of detritus from the past.

(Malcolm Harris has more thoughts inspired by the talk here.)

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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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